Garden Related Activities


woodchuck-in-pasture

Groundhog in field. pcooper photo

February brings groundhog day at its beginning and some longer day-length and light at the month’s end. It is always a little exciting to watch silly weather-men and women  with a groundhog waiting to see if it will cast a shadow on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow, it is believed he will go back to sleep for we will have six more weeks of winter.  We in Connecticut should know it is still too early for this hibernating animal to wake from its winter slumber deep underground if it were left to its own in a natural environment. Thankfully we have a few nature centers caring for rescued animals that would otherwise not survive in the wild. Some have a groundhog or two to share with the public on this most ceremonious day of weather prediction. And the annual tradition continues with much lightheartedness bringing needed smiles and community, and a 50 50 chance of accuracy.

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Punxsutawney Phil (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

How they get the groundhog to participate is a great feat, because after all, it is a wild animal most people encounter feeding on lawn and gardens, or on sides of highways in open land. They are those brown, ground hugging mounds moving in the grassy areas along the roads.

Other names for groundhog are woodchuck and whistle pig. They do make a whistling sound when alarmed and a ‘chuck chuck’ sound both inspiring their common names. Their Latin name is Marmota monax and are a rodent in the squirrel family. These ground dwelling rodents dig tunnels two to five feet deep and up to 30 feet long. They usually produce one generation per year in litter numbers of two to six born in April or May. At six weeks of age, young are free to forage for themselves and leave the den on their own. That is a lot of woodchucks for one small, suburban lawn!

I personally have a running summer battle with a family of groundhogs determined to scale the fence surrounding my vegetable garden and eat just about everything I grow.  Fencing should be left loose and angled out and away from the garden so the climbing animal will fall out rather than into the garden. Bury the bottom of the fence 1 1/2 to  2 feet deep to prevent digging under the fence. Stringing an electric fence wire four to six inches above the ground in addition to the fence will give the animal a shock, providing it with a lesson not to return. Animal repellents of hot pepper, garlic, sulfur and predator urine can all be sprayed around areas you want to protect. These usually need to be reapplied after hard rain. It is illegal to put out any poison which targets woodchuck. Trapping is allowed according to the Connecticut DEEP, with relocation onto State managed wildlife areas or forests. However, DEEP does not recommend relocating nuisance animals as it is very stressful for the animal. It will not have housing, food or water and usually ends in death of the animal. DEEP recommends humane euthanization.

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Woodchuck in trap. Pamm Cooper photo

Groundhog, woodchuck or whistle pig, whatever you call them, they can do a lot of damage. Below is a picture of a pretty old weeping cherry tree on the great lawn of the UConn campus in Storrs. I have been watching the steady decline and eventual death of this specimen tree due to the extensive tunneling and den building, excavating under the roots. There are large soil mounds and a wide hole giving access and  protection. UConn has many such areas providing shelter to the ever-growing population of these animals, which can be common place to see all over campus. Stepping in one of holes can also be a danger. Farmers have long battled with woodchucks making holes in pasture and field, especially dangerous for horses and cows which could break a leg.

woodchuck-and-dying-ornamental-tree

Death of weeping cherry due to woodchuck tunneling under root system. Pamm Cooper photo.

If control measures of fences, repellents and traps still leave you with a groundhog problem, there is always the option of hiring a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator licensed by the State. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/nwco/nwcodir.pdf

-Carol Quish

 

lime-bag-homedepot

Bag of Lime

Many Connecticut residents spread limestone on their garden beds and lawn as an annual ritual. Why do we do this? Some do it because their parents did it, or the guy at the garden center told them to and sold them the limestone. How much should be purchased and applied is another mystery to most. The real answers of limestone’s why, how much and when lies in the science of soil.

Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each of these three determine the soil’s texture, which will determine how the water will move through it, or hold on to moisture. More clay equals wetter soils; more sand, better drainage. The sand, silt and clay are tiny pieces of rock, broken off of bigger pieces over much time by weathering. The rocks that makes up much of Connecticut has a naturally low pH in the 4.5 to 5.5 range. Other areas of the country and world have different rocks with different pH ranges. Acid rain falling onto the ground lowers pH levels, as does the action of organic matter decomposing which produces organic acids. Even the normal function of respiration by plants mixing oxygen and water together produces carbonic acid in the soil. More acid equals lower pH. No wonder why we need to test, monitor and fight the natural tendency of our soil to stay in a low pH range.

Most plants we want to grow require a pH range of 6 to 7. This means we have to change the pH to grow plants like grass, tomatoes, peppers, squash or garlic by adding limestone which raises the pH level. The only plants consistently happy with our native range are native plants! They have evolved in the local soil. This is why blueberries, oak trees and mountain laurel fill our forests and wild areas. Pines are another tree preferring our lower pH.

Why do the grass and vegetables prefer the 6 to 7 pH range? Because more of the nutrients that these species of plants need are available when the soil pH is in that range. The easiest way to think of pH is it is a measurement of the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the soil is. The pH of the soil affects the availability of all plant nutrients. Just as plants have ideal moisture and light requirements, they have a preferred pH range as well.

The pH range numbers 0 to 14. The middle is neutral at 7. Pure water has a pH of 7. 0 is acid or bitter; 14 is alkaline or sweet. Old time farmers used to taste the soil to determine if it was bitter (acid, low) or sweet (high, alkaline). I am glad we have pH meters and laboratory soil testing equipment now!

0_________________________________________7_____________________________________14 Acid (Bitter)                                                                           Neutral                                                                  Alkaline (Sweet)

Soil pH levels also affect other life in the soil such as insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. The soil is alive with more than just plants. It is an entire ecosystem sustaining many life forms all interacting with each other. The pH level is probably the most important place to start when trying to provide the best environment for whatever plants you are growing.

Have your soil tested for pH and nutrient levels at the UConn Soil Nutrient Laboratory www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Have the $12.00 basic test for Home Grounds and Landscapers done. Forms and directions are on the website. We will be offering free pH only tests at the CT Flower Show February 23-26, 2017. A half cup of soil is needed. If you don’t have snow covering your ground now, go gather some soil now and hold it until the show. Once you know the pH of your soil, we can tell you how much limestone to apply in the spring. Fall is the best time to put down lime as it needs about six months to fully react and change the soil pH. Never put limestone down on frozen or snow-covered soil to avoid it running off to areas you didn’t intend to lime, like the storm drain. Limestone will not soak into frozen soil.

ph-meter

pH Meter

-Carol Quish

 

If you could pick a superpower what would you choose? Extraordinary strength? Extrasensory perception? Exceptional intelligence? How about the ability to predict the future?  Or at least the weather? It would be so much easier to plan and plant a garden each year if we only knew what the growing season had in store. Is it going to be a very long, cold, and wet spring with a frost at the end of May? Then the warm weather crops shouldn’t go into the ground until the start of June when the soil will be warm and dry enough to encourage germination of seeds such as beans which do not like cold, wet feet. Will a lack of precipitation stunt plant growth and require more supplemental watering than usual?

It’s no surprise to anyone at this point that Connecticut is experiencing drought conditions that range from abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions in the western part of the state according to the USDA. The National Weather Service Seasonal Drought Outlook only extends through February 28, 2017 at this point but it predicts that the drought will persist in the Northeast based on “subjectively derived probabilities guided by short- and long-range statistical and dynamic forecasts”. Say that three times fast!

weather-chart

The National Weather Service, which is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was formed in 1970 under President Richard E. Nixon’s administration. Prior to that date they were known as the Weather Bureau (forms 1870) and before that, the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (formed 1807). It’s safe to say that NOAA has the most up to date weather technology including geosynchronous satellites, Doppler weather radar, and undersea research centers. But even with that technology most predictions are only up to 90% accurate for 6-10 days out. Past that it becomes probable trends based on current and past information.

And yet, for 225 years, there has been a resource that claims that its weather forecasts are 80-85% accurate. Since 1792 the Old Farmer’s Almanac has been a go-to resource for weather, astronomy, gardening, cooking, and predictions of trends in food, fashion, and technology.

About that weather accuracy claim: the Old Farmer’s Almanac has a closer to 50% predictability rate. But that doesn’t stop thousands of readers, especially in the pre-National Weather Service days, from using it as their planting and growing guide. Its folksy character is a large part of its charm. Not to mention its compact size and unique punched hole in the upper left-hand corner for hanging from a nail or string in the outhouse. I pause for a second to express gratitude for modern indoor plumbing.

And now, spoiler alert, here are the Northeast predictions for 2017 from The Old Farmer’s Almanac: Although there will be lower precipitation than normal in January it will be at or above normal for February through July with temperatures 1-4° below normal for most of that period. Pretty much the opposite of what 2016 brought us. But what stands out the most is the blizzard accompanied by bitter cold that is predicted for February 11-17. Let’s hope that one isn’t correct!

Susan Pelton

Images NOAA, Old Farmer’s Almanac

 

bulbs-in-package

Bulbs in package, CQuish photo

If, like me, you are a gardener of good intentions, you probably have a few bags of spring flowering bulbs you never got around to planting. Well it is not too late! They can be planted as long as the ground is not frozen. It may not be as comfortable or enjoyable digging the holes in December as it would have been in early October, but better late than never. Bulbs not planted will not bloom.

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Tulip bulbs, plant roots down, point up. CQuish photo

Daffodils, tulips, crocus, hyacinth and scilla are commonly sold at garden centers, big box stores and through catalogs. Other species are available and all will need to be planted, and then experience a cold period of six to ten weeks to signal the bulb to bloom when the soil warms again in the spring. If the bulbs are not planted until next March or April, they will not bloom that year as they did not receive their needed chilling period. So get them in the ground now before we have to shovel snow.

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Crocus bulbs showing a little growth from the top, and roots from the knobby bottom. CQuish photo.

Larger bulbs such as daffodils and hyacinth should be planted four to six inches deep, or two to three times their height.  Smaller bulbs of crocus and scilla go two to three inches deep into the soil. Add a teaspoon of bone meal into the planting hole mixing it into the soil in the bottom of the hole. Then place the bulb in the hole, pointed side up and flat side down. The roots will grow out of the flatter side and grow down; the leaves and stem will grow from the pointed end and reach up. If you can’t tell which end should be up, lay it on its side and each will find their way where they should be.

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Scilla bulbs, notice the roots on the flat bottom. CQuish photo

Bulbs can be planted in pots in potting medium for forcing indoors, too. They will still need the about ten weeks of chilling period at 40 to 45 degrees F. They can be kept out doors in an unheated shed or porch, or placed in a refrigerator which does contain any fruit. Fruit gives off ethylene gas as it ripens which will retard or kill the growing flower inside the bulb. After the allotted time, bring out the pot and all to be placed in a bright window for the warmth of the house and light to signal the bulbs to grow. This provides a nice bit of spring in late winter inside the house. After they bloom, and later in the spring, these bulbs can be replanted outside.

forcedbulbs-daffodils

Potted daffodils, photo WS.edu

Annual care for bulbs planted outside is to leave the foliage on the plant. The leaves are the food factory for the bulb. Leaves are where photosynthesis happens, taking energy from the sun to convert it into carbohydrates to be stored in the bulb. If the leaves are green, let them be. Only remove them after they have yellowed and turned brown. Do not braid or wrap the leaves together either. The leaf is like a solar plate and must access the sunrays, which it cannot do if wrapped up. Flower stems should be trimmed off so energy is not wasted making a seed. Bulb beds can be fertilized after all foliage has turned brown. Fertilizing before flowering can cause disease to attack the bulb.

daffodil

Daffodil, CQuish photo

-Carol Quish

This summer has been, as they say, one for the books. High temperatures that went on for weeks and limited rainfall certainly did a number on our gardens, containers, and flower beds. Many calls to the Home & Garden Education Center were from gardeners bemoaning the sad state of affairs. Plants were stunted, didn’t set flowers or dropped them early when they did, leaves were scorched looking, and in general plants just performed poorly.

What a relief when the temps dropped into the 80s and rain actually fell in measurable quantities. Plants rebounded, lawns revived, and gardens began to produce once again. My window boxes and some hanging containers did not quite survive though and I refilled most of them this week with some beautiful flowering vinca and a plant that is new to me, evolvulus, a member of the morning glory family that produces tiny, bright blue flowers that last just a day.

Vinca and evolvulus 2

The squash plants that I thought were done for have now taken over their areas and are producing copious blossoms and fruit. I am happy to see that the Powdery mildew resistant variety (Success PM) has proven its worth as there are very few signs of the disease.

The squash bugs however have yet to give up the fight. There are still egg masses every few days and the odd grouping of nymphs that I am not sorry to say do not last long once I have spotted them.

The cucumbers and the eggplants are loaded with blossoms and have started bearing fruit. The tomatoes, which hadn’t suffered as much as some of the other plants, have been slow to ripen but they can continue to produce into October if they are covered at night.

I had moved some potted basil plants into a shady area a few weeks back and they have shown their appreciation by filling out nicely. I detect pesto in our near future! A second planting of arugula looks great as does the kale.

 

 

And we are not the only ones that are enjoying the kale. This differential grasshopper was munching away happily, not even caring that I was filming him. This species of grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) has been known to do some substantial damage to crops such as grains, hay, and alfalfa, especially during hot, dry periods which increase the likelihood of survival of the nymphs and adults. They will also feed on annuals such as sunflowers and perennials including one of their favorites: ragweed. Maybe they are not all bad. They don’t cause enough damage in a home garden to warrant insecticidal control.

 

A striped cucumber beetle (Acalymma vittatum) was also enjoying the kale even though the cucumber plants were not far away. The adult feeds on the foliage and the larvae feed on the roots but the biggest problem that they bring with them is the bacterial wilt known as Erwinia tracheiphila which can be fatal to cucurbits. The feeding of the adult beetle opens wounds in the plant but it is through the frass (excrement) that the bacteria enter the vascular tissues of the plant. As the bacteria multiply they block the xylem and prevent water and nutrients from reaching the shoots and leaves. The striped cucumber beetle is definitely a bigger concern than the grasshopper or squash bugs as they move so quickly that it is hard to just squish them out of existence like I do with the squash bug nymphs.

Striped cucmber beetle

Over on the asparagus fern a red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) stood out brightly against the delicate ferns. As with other insects that also feed on milkweed the red milkweed beetle accumulates alkaloid toxins in their flesh that protect it from predators. The black spots against that bright red-orange background are the insect equivalent of a large ‘Do Not Eat” sign. These can be picked off and dropped into a container of soapy water. Don’t use a spray or systemic insecticide on the milkweed as it will harm the beneficial insects that also visit, especially the Monarch butterfly.

Red Milkweed beetle.1jpg

The Asian lady beetle has that same bright coloring and also uses a defensive chemical to deter predators. Some humans are allergic to this foul-smelling liquid that can be exuded from their legs. But this one was very busy doing what ‘ladybugs’ do best, munching on some aphids that were on the underside of a squash leaf.

 

The lady beetles may start to congregate both inside and outside of houses and can be a nuisance. Visit our fact sheet for information on the Asian lady beetle if you experience an infestation and consider the non-lethal ways to remove them, keeping in mind how beneficial they will be in next year’s garden. Although the nighttime temperatures can start to dip into the 50s as we progress into September the garden will enjoy the still warm days into October.

Susan Pelton

All images and videos by S. Pelton

 

 

Cracks in tomatoes, black rotten spots on the bottom of tomato fruit, and a hard yellow or white area on the inside walls of ripe tomatoes are all physiological problems, not caused by insects or disease.  It is a sad sight for gardeners investing so much time and energy to see the actual fruits of their labor turn into less than perfect tomatoes.

 

cracking of tomato, joey Williamson HGIC,Clemson.edu

Cracked Tomato

Let’s start with why tomatoes crack. Higher moisture levels after a dry period, such as lots of rain after a time of drought, will cause the inside cells to swell and grow faster than the outside skin will grow, resulting in splitting of the skin. To prevent cracking, keep soil evenly moist by watering, and use a mulch to prevent evaporation and keep soil cooler. Cracked tomatoes are still very edible, but not so pretty. Sometimes the cracks are deep, allowing rot to happen inside the meat of the fruit. Plan to use split tomatoes before rotting happen.

Blossom End Rot on Tomatoes, J.Allen Photo

Blossom End Rot, photo by Joan Allen.

Blossom end rot is expressed by a black, sunken area on the bottom, the blossom end, of the tomato. It is caused by a lack of calcium reaching the fruit. The soil could be lacking calcium which can only be determined by having a soil test done for nutrient levels. UConn does a basic soil test for $12.00 at soiltest.uconn.edu. New England is not usually lacking calcium in its soil, it is more likely the cause of blossom end rot is an interruption in the delivery of calcium from the soil to the fruit via water uptake. This is caused by irregular watering, letting the soil dry out, then watering or having a big rain event. Occasionally, high levels of potassium or magnesium fertilizers will compete with calcium uptake by the plants. Only use a balanced fertilizer to avoid an excess of individual nutrients and provide even water levels to the soil to avoid blossom end rot. Portions of the tomato not rotted are also still edible if you cut away the bad part.

yellowshoulder, hort.purdue.edu

Yellow Shoulders, hort.purdue.edu

Yellow shoulders disorder occurs on the top part of the tomato when areas never turn red, but stay yellow. The flesh underneath can be tough and corky. It can occur only on the top portion or can occur as a grey or white wall just under the skin around the whole fruit.This problem is caused by a number of different circumstances or combinations of them. We do know it is a problem at the cellular level that happens very early as the fruit is forming.  Cells in the area are smaller and not aligned normally, and the green chlorophyll areas do not develop red pigment. Causes are thought to be high temperatures over 90 degrees F at time of fruit formation, and possible pH levels over 6.7, and potassium, magnesium and calcium competition among each other. Again, a balanced fertilizer is needed.

tomato with white walls, yellow shoulders, photo by Becky M.

Tomato with white walls, yellow shoulders, photo by Becky M.

 

The take away message for all of these physiological problems are to have an adequate soil fertility and soil pH without over fertilizing, and have even soil moisture. Hope for summer temperatures to stay at or below 90 degrees F and your harvest baskets will be full of beautiful, delicious tomatoes.

-Carol Quish

 

It has been a dry few weeks in the vegetable garden resulting in dusty soil and slow-growing for those who are unable or unwilling to water. I have been watering only the vegetables in raised beds, which have responded nicely. Tomatoes are four feet tall with plenty of flowers and varying developmental stages of fruit. Cherry tomatoes seem a little behind this year compared to the hybrid larger plants.  For better fruit set and pollination, simulate the actions of a buzzing bee inside the flower releasing pollen by shaking the entire plant a little each day. This really works, especially if your garden lacks other flowering plants which attract pollinators.  A new trick I read about and will employ this year is to hang red Christmas balls on the tomato plants before fruit begins to ripen to fool the squirrels, chipmunks and birds into thinking those red orbs are not for eating.  Last year I had quite a few V-shaped holes in ripe tomatoes from bird beaks. Christmas ornaments in July might look a little silly, but worth it to keep the tomatoes free of bites except for humans. Shiny pinwheels placed around the garden to catch the wind works well, too. I found one plum tomato with blossom end rot today. Blossom end rot is caused by a lack of calcium in the soil, or an interruption in the delivery of calcium to the developing fruit. An interruption can be caused by uneven watering. Perhaps I was not as regular providing equal amounts of water as I thought!

tomato blossom end rot 2016, 7-8-2016

tomato blossom end rot

squash, yellow 7-2016

Summer squash

Summer squash and zucchini are doing very nicely. I have seen the squash vine borer adult flying among the plants, so I know I will have wilting vines about the time we are sick of eating squash casserole, breads and grilled zucchini. I should have planted extra squash seed every two weeks in another bed and kept it covered with row covers to replace the older plants which eventually die from the larva tunneling out the stems. (See an earlier blog for info on squash vine borer.)

Another squash pest easier to hand-pick and present also on my squash and cucumbers is the squash beetle. I scout for adults, eggs laid on top or bottom of leaves, and for the larval stage. I just squish all stages as my go to control measure. Cucumbers are climbing the trellis of arched cattle fencing re-purposed from a friend cleaning his garage.

Snow peas are just about finishing up after a late start and long spring. Flat leaf parsley needs to be picked and dehydrated or made into pesto and frozen on a cookie sheet in separate spoonfuls before storing in a ziplock and kept in the freezer. Easy way to take one or two and use in cooking.

 

Kale is growing faster than we can eat it! I find I can stay ahead of the cross-striped caterpillar and cabbage worm by interrupting their life cycle by cutting back all of the leaves except the growing tip at one time. I soak the leaves in a sink full of cold water with half cup of salt added to it. The caterpillars float to the top or sink to the bottom and the kale is clean. Although eating one or two after the kale is cooked won’t hurt us.

Kales, 7-8-2016

Kale

Hardneck garlic is proving to produce some pretty large bulbs this year, if the diameter of the stalk is any indication. I also pulled one a little early to check on the development. It was big. I am thinking the long, mild fall and winter let the root development go on a long time creating a healthy crop. Just waiting for half of the leaves to dry and turn tan signaling they are ready to be dug and hung to dry in the garage. Outside of the garden the gypsy moth caterpillars are pupating and emerging as the adult moths. The males are brownish, flitting around in a zigzagging flight seeking out the white, flightless females for mating.

garlic,hardneck, 7-8-2016

Hardneck garlic

I would love to spend the summer in my garden, but alas, I must return to work during the week. My interest in insects perks up when my basement office in a very old building surprises with the gift of a house centipede. While others may startle and run for a rolled up newspaper or fly swatter, I grab the camera for a picture to share with you. Don’t worry, they are harmless.

House centepede, 7-2016

House centipede.

-Carol Quish

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